There are 4 main types of life and work problems we face every day. Here's how to solve each one

High angle view of woman playing cards
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When it comes to solving problems and making tough decisions, people love plans (especially their own plans), so they make a lot of them. And because they want the perfect plan, they demand more data to help them.

Inevitably, though, this takes longer and longer, and instead of the goal being to reach a decision, the process of making the decision becomes the goal.

There may be studies, hearings and debates, but nothing actually gets done. This can go on for quite a while, depending on the nature of the decision ... all because everyone wants the perfect plan.

The 'perfect plan' doesn't exist

More often than not, it's impossible to know the results of a dynamic system in advance. So any action is better than no action; it doesn't matter what you do, it just matters that you do, in order to learn and move forward.

Smart leaders know that in order to solve any major problem, the goal should be to get quick feedback on whether that decision was a good one or not. If it wasn't, then they know to pivot and seek a different path.

Each decision informs the next. The path emerges from the doing.

The 4 types of problems we encounter daily

In 1999, while working at IBM, a guy named Dave Snowden came up with a way of looking at problems to help people know what kind of problem they are facing, and what kind of solution they should be looking for.

He calls it the Cynefin framework — cynefin is a Welsh word that means "habitat" — because you need to know where you stand.

1. The simple problem

The first type of problem in Snowden's framework is simple and obvious. It has already been solved, and there actually is a best practice that works all the time.

Once you can determine that a problem is simple, you can apply a known recipe from your bag of tricks. If you're playing poker, never draw to an inside straight. A bank shouldn't make loans to people with X level of debt load.

With simple problems, the relationship between cause and effect is not only clear but obvious.

2. The complicated problem

This is the kind of problem where you have a known unknown. Take a giant oil company, for example: When geologists run a seismic survey to learn where they could drill for oil, they know they don't know the answer, but they know how to find it.

This is the domain of the expert. Once you have ascertained that the problem is solvable, you can work out a solution, even if it turns out to be tricky. If you're knowledgeable enough, you can figure out cause and effect.

I always think of this when I bring my car into the shop. It's making a weird noise and I'm worried. I know I don't know how to address this problem, but I know that my mechanic knows, or can figure it out.

3. The complex problem

The third type of problem is complex, where you can only figure out afterward why what happened happened. Here you have to take some sort of action to see what happens before you act again.

Most of us wrestle with complex problems. All the time. The answers aren't known, and all the forces aren't known. But we have to do something. And what happens will surprise us.

Let's examine the story of Twitch, a web service that allows people to stream themselves playing a video game so that other people can watch them do it. This isn't an obvious product except in retrospect. But Twitch is an incredible success story. Amazon acquired it for $970 million in 2014.

This company's first product idea? A calendar that would integrate with Gmail. Of course, then Google came out with Google Calendar. So the company decided to go into live-streaming.

One of the founders would stream his entire life, 24/7. Camera on head and a big backpack with a computer — constantly live. They built an incredibly fast live-streaming service that a lot of people could use at the same time. But as it turns out, no one really wanted to watch that live-stream.

So they opened the idea up. Maybe people wanted to live-stream themselves? It really wasn't working in the marketplace, and they were running out of cash. Then, they noticed that a lot of people were watching live-streams of people playing video games. Weird.

But they went with that, and it turns out there is an avid audience of fans and recreational gamers who want to watch the top players play. People can make a small fortune just playing video games and streaming it for others to watch.

...any action is better than no action; it doesn't matter what you do, it just matters that you do, in order to learn and move forward.
J.J. Sutherland
CEO, Scrum Inc.

That's an extreme example of a solution to a need that no one knew existed. But the problems we're facing today in business, politics and society are tough ones. Often we simply do not know the solution. And sometimes we don't know how to even approach the solution.

So what you need to do is try something and then see what happens. Take the results of that and tweak what you're doing. Then try again. Tweak again. And let the solution emerge. That's all it is — a series of small experiments in short periods of time to find a solution to a complex problem.

4. The chaotic problem

The final type of problem in the Cynefin framework is chaotic. This is essentially a crisis.

Let's say there's a tsunami, or an oil rig blows up, or an uprising turns into a revolution, or there's a stock market crash. The first thing to do is to take action quickly, and begin to take steps to encapsulate the problem, to define its limits, to bring it out of the chaotic and into the realm of the merely complex.

One example I use to describe a chaotic problem is a riot. One night during the Arab Spring, I was in the middle of a crowd that decided to storm the parliament building. This crowd of tens of thousands lurched as one toward the parliament gates.

Here speed matters. Delaying the decision will only worsen the problem.
J.J. Sutherland
CEO, Scrum Inc.

Then screams broke out from one side and the whole crowd got chaotic. Everyone was running around unsure of what to do, and they turned from individuals into a mob. I was standing in the middle of all this with a young American student I'd hired because she spoke Arabic. I told her — and I'll tell you — exactly what to do in a riot.

First, don't panic. I can't emphasize how important that is. Blind fear is what gets people trampled and killed. Second, find something hard that can't easily be knocked over, like a lamppost. It's bizarre — the crowd will part around you like a river around a stone.

What you've done is pulled the chaotic into the complex. Take a minute. Breathe. Figure out what the escape routes are. You have that freedom now. You can't do anything when you're just another body being flung about, but if you can get out of the noise and fear, you can start to come up with a plan.

Here speed matters. Delaying the decision will only worsen the problem. By rapidly iterating — trying something, seeing the response, trying again — you can ultimately succeed in bringing the crisis under control.

This trial-and-error approach can feel terrifying in the moment. But it's also an opportunity. New ways of doing things will emerge as people try to figure out how to work in an environment that didn't exist the day before.

J.J. Sutherland is the CEO of Scrum Inc., a consulting and training firm, author of "The Scrum Fieldbook" and co-author of the best-selling book "Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time." Previously, he was an award-winning correspondent and producer for NPR. Follow J.J. on LinkedIn.

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*This is an adapted excerpt from "The Scrum Fieldbook," by J.J. Sutherland. Copyright © 2019 by J.J. Sutherland. Excerpted by permission of Currency. All rights reserved.

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